La sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.
– Le Fleurs de Mal, Charles Baudelaire
Kenneth Gibson told me about a time when he and his buddies had so much cocaine, they were giving it away for free.
“The party life just hit me, man,” he said, his words thickened from the street.
He had a nice job at the time making parts of tanks and other equipment for the military. But he went to work high as balls one day and soon found himself getting drug tested.
And that’s how he ended up homeless. For the third time.
“I was homeless by 6,” he said.
I met Kenneth in the middle of an acid trip that lasted far too long after the parties had ended, as I figured out at the fourth hour of nothing to do. I had never been so existentially bored in my life.
Earlier in the day I was enjoying pre-Halloween festivities with another student friend, Michael Johnston, the president of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies on campus. I suggested we take a walk on Franklin street.
“Come,” I said, “Let’s feel something.”
He did not enjoy himself. The streets were lawless. People crossed the roads when they pleased, and the cars moved around like all the traffic laws had been repealed. This wasn’t a place he felt comfortable; this was a place that had to be policed. He would prefer his nights dressed in a suit ready to debate this week’s hot topic, like I do with him every Monday.
I decided we would go on the horror show together. Take him on a ride. He and I have political talks sometimes. I spend the conversation imploring him to be a little okay with the prospect of collapse. He says he’s too comfortable for that kind of freedom. So, I think, let’s go through the haunted house of industrial comfort.
The perfect scenes hit us immediately. The cars were doing their thing in the roads, two college students made out against a storefront, and another threw his beer to the ground while the crowd he was with erupted. A bus stops in front of us, its fumes filling the air, its lights banishing the shadows that would otherwise be crawling about, and like that a horde of students flocks toward the opening bus door.
“Pavlov’s dogs,” I mumble.
Johnston is visibly anxious now. What a night. I ask him if this is the comfort he was talking about.
“This comes with the comfort, yes,” he says. “We all know there are some elements you just tolerate—”
A man mumbles an incoherent joke our way and then falls into a fit of laughter. I can’t help but join him.
The students were completely absorbed in themselves. It was grotesque. Here there are people begging them for some water, and they’re in the water park just playing in it. And it’s Halloween—hard party time—so there’s no room for an extra kindness to strangers on the street. This is a shove and move climate. It had been for a good week. That’s how it is every year.
C’est l’Ennui!—l’œil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!
After Johnston went to sleep I decided to visit Franklin Street again. It was empty then. Nothing was walking in the streets but ghosts and a straggler or two.
Everything was filthy. My feet kept crushing cups, and the wind couldn’t help but grab a handful of napkins here or there.
I bought a coke and sat on a bench. I watched the street sweepers sweep. After I got bored with that I visited a few of the late night venues, the Walgreens and the Waffle House. It’s been a bad night, they report, and they didn’t even make a lot of money this time.
“God knows what Halloween night will be,” a waitress remarks.
When I can’t take sitting in the Waffle House for a second hour, I move outside to smoke a cigarette. I needed to escape the boredom.
And that’s when Kenneth came along.
I’m not even sure if that’s his real name. By the time I asked, he’d already told me quite a bit about his life, and I could see him struggling to come up with a name on the spot.
“Kinghuh,” he says.
I let that point slide.
So Kenneth, what we’ll call him, is about 60 years old. He’s fully swaddled in his cold weather clothing. He was to the point of napping when I snagged him and asked if he wanted a smoke.
“I’ve gotta keep alert tonight,” he said.
We realize we’ve got the beginnings of a pact: I keep him up, he keeps me occupied. So we begin.
We talk a little about the carnival we both experienced earlier. He tells me he likes to just sit and watch.
“I’m just like, ‘God, damn,’ you know?” he says. “What are you students doin’?!”
He slides quickly into the rabbit hole of conversation, spilling words and stories all over the sidewalk, some of them barely connected.
He tells me about a time he found a purse with a ringing phone. He answered it, of course, and honed in like a seasoned street rat.
“How much is the reward?” he asked.
The girl only offered him 10 bucks. He wonders aloud what he’s gonna do with that. So, he says, he threw her purse in the woods and broke her phone.
“What am I gonna do with it? Ain’t got nobody to call. And sure as hell she was reminded that what we was talking about was worth more than 10 bucks.”
He doesn’t stop before he hits the next subject. Now he’s telling me how he copes. He and I complain about some of the changes at the homeless shelter. Bureaucracy’s got a hold of it lately, we say. They don’t serve breakfast at all anymore and only serve lunches on the weekends. Kenneth says that the town is trying to weed them out. He’s right.
Everything he has, he says, he has done for himself. Because when you’re homeless people don’t want to help you. Not when you’re trying to get your life together.
“They all about the junkies and the ones strewn out, man, but as soon as it comes to people trying to get they shit together…”
His looks at me, spreads his face out and sends his eyebrows flying, and he and I just laugh. I remember what he’s talking about and can’t believe I had forgotten it.
“Anyway,” he goes on, “I just gotta look at it all and go, ‘Damn, must be nice.’”
Then he gets apocalyptic.
“I see sin, I see emptiness, I see judgment. You know?” he asks me. I nod.
He tells me about the power of Christ, the shield of religion. He keeps going until he notices the conversation waxing thin. He’s got one more thing to say before I leave.
Kenneth is a man who appreciates his dignity. He doesn’t meet many people who understand that. But sometimes he doesn’t take the money people offer him because they’ll do it callously. Talk a little with their buddies and then come back to give him a buck more. He doesn’t like getting made fun of that way, he says. So he just hands it back. He knows that they’re the ones panhandling, and he’s not gonna let them have what they want.
I tell him I understand, but that I really do need to get back to my bed. I leave him with a few cigarettes and make my way off.
“Burn it down, man! Burn it down!” he says playfully.
I think back to the carnival before and wonder how earnest he’s being.